Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hi all,

I want to thank all of you who have sent me the kind notes encouraging me to start blogging again and inquiring about why I have stopped. Many people seem to believe I quit blogging because of the election results, or because the new more conservative County Council has depressed me so much I just don’t see the point anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is I have just been too busy. I like doing the blog to let people know in more detail what is going on with the County Council, but it is really a luxury that had to be set aside while I attended to necessities.

As you probably know the County Council is just a part time job that doesn’t pay very much, so I have another job to pay the bills. In my full time position as director of the national Pipeline Safety Trust I work more than full time, and because of a number of high profile pipeline disasters in the last few months I have been extremely busy, which is why the blog stopped since September.

Over the summer the Pipeline Safety Trust testified to Congress six times. Then in August a pipeline failed and dumped nearly a million gallons of crude oil into a river in Michigan. About a month later a natural gas pipeline near San Francisco exploded killing eight people, totally destroying 38 homes and damaging a good part of the rest of the neighborhood. The media swarm that those tragedies spawned was all encompassing with reporters starting to call my house at 5 AM, and often not giving up until 9 PM. During the months of August, September, and October a national news clipping service reports that the Pipeline Safety Trust was quoted in 1824 stories in 724 separate news sources.

That is why this blog has been on a hiatus. Luckily, things have started to mellow out again in the pipeline world so hopefully the blog will become a little more regular after the first of the year. I look forward to once again having the time to devote to this luxury.

For those of you who are interested in these pipeline safety issues there is much information on the Pipeline Safety Trust’s website here. A good seven minute TV story about many of these recent issues, and filmed in part along Whatcom Creek, can be viewed at:

Happy Holidays!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Subsidizing Rural Development - A blatant case study

Lummi Island - Providing transportation between a rock and a hard place

People who live in our county's cities are starting to learn the lesson that they are often called upon to share an increasing portion of their tax dollars to support services for those who live in the more rural areas of the county. For years the County through planning and zoning decisions has encouraged lot creation in rural areas, which in turn has encouraged people to “drive till they qualify” since cheaper housing has been available the farther you are willing to drive. Places like Birch Bay, Peaceful Valley, Sandy Point Heights, Sudden Valley, and Lummi Island were all places where families could find an affordable first home, and where lower income folks could more likely afford the rent.

Now we have thousands of people living in these far-flung areas, and while their homes may have been cheaper, providing them with county services is way more expensive. On top of that many of these rural residents seem to believe that the sheriff, the fire department, and the ambulance should show up in the same amount of time as if they lived on Maple St in Bellingham, and they want their roads to be wide and smooth so they can drive fast to get to town where they for the most part work and shop. Ironically, many of these rural characters are some of the most outspoken against any hint of raising taxes to pay for services, instead preferring to continue to allow services for the majority of taxpayers who live in urban areas to decline so their taxes can be used to provide “essential” services to these rural dwellers.

There is no place quite as easy to see and evaluate this problem as Lummi Island, and the current quandary regarding the lease for docking facilities with the Lummi Nation has brought it front and center. Without getting into that lease quagmire, and the increased costs that will have to be put on someone, lets just take a look at how much Lummi Island is already being subsidized by others in the county.

I believe when most people pay taxes to the County they believe that some small “fair share” of that tax money goes to support each of the services that the county provides. While not everyone might agree on the need for all the services, the services at this point include law enforcement, courts, roads, elections, controlling disease, planning, parks, protection of natural resources, economic development, a variety of social services, etc. So for rural residents of Lummi Island how much of their county tax dollar supports these services?
• In round figures the 2010 assessed value of all property on Lummi Island is $270,079,836. This equates to 1.08% of the total countywide assessed value of $25,077,540,196.

• The 2010 assessment for the Road Fund is $1.3361 per $1000 of value, so people on Lummi Island will pay $360,854 into the Road Fund. This equates to 2.12% of the total Road Fund collected countywide.

• The 2010 assessment for the General Fund is $1.02054 per $1000 of value, so people on Lummi Island will pay $275,627 into the General Fund. This equates to 1.08 % of the total General Fund collected countywide.

• The 2009 Lummi Island Ferry operating expenditures were $2,545,688. According to current county policy 45% of ferry operating costs are supposed to come from county taxpayers, and 55% of the costs are supposed to come from collected fares. In 2009 the taxpayers share was $1,145,560, which equates to $509,079 more than all the General Fund and Road Fund taxes that will be collected on Lummi Island in 2010. In other words all property taxes collected on the Island for the General Fund and Road Fund fall over a half million dollars short of covering the cost of just the ferry, and provide no support for other county provided services such as law enforcement, courts, road repair, elections, health department, planning, parks, etc. Of course property taxes only account for about 50% of the General Fund and 75% of the Road Fund, but it is clear that sales tax and other revenue sources paid by people on Lummi Island do not come near paying for the ferry, let alone a per capita share of other county provided services.
Now before my friends on Lummi Island go to look for their pitchforks let me be clear that I am not suggesting that people on Lummi Island should pay 100% of the cost of the ferry. Just like I am not suggesting that the people who use Mosquito Lake Road pay the millions of dollars recently spent to replace the Middle Fork bridge, or that people in the Deming area pay 100% of the millions of dollars that have been spent to protect their area from flooding, or that people in Columbia Valley pay 100% of the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent to build them a Resource Center, or that the handful of families that live on Rutsatz Road pay 100% of the tens of thousands of dollars that was recently spent to fix their road from river damage. The theory and promise of government is that if we each pay our small fair share, that money will go much further to provide desired services and protect us all from catastrophic losses (violent crime, spread of infectious disease, flooding, loss of our homes or income source, pollution of our drinking water, etc) then if we each had to try to provide those things for ourselves.

Under current county policy the people on Lummi Island are not supposed to pay 100% of the ferry service but only the 55% that gets collected as ferry fares, and then their small percentage of the 45% of the costs that come from taxes. I was not arguing that they are not paying enough, but only using the Lummi Island example to point out that development in rural areas, wherever it occurs, rarely pays for itself and has to be subsidized by those in urban areas. My main point is - before we start arguing about the fairness of such subsidies we should at least stop making it worse!

Unfortunately it appears that some on the County Council, perhaps a majority, while apparently ready to throw the folks on Lummi Island under the bus on these rising ferry costs are also still in favor of encouraging more lot development in rural areas which will just continue to increase the same type of subsidies in other parts of the County. While a logical, slow, predictable correction of these subsidies may be valuable over the long run, it makes no sense to pull the rug out from under these communities after encouraging this type of development for years. But I am not sure any such correction is the plan of the current Council, instead I think those in urban areas better hold onto their wallets, and those in places like Point Roberts, Acme, Kendall, Lummi Island, Deming and Lake Samish better watch your backs because it appears the County Council is just planning to continue the subsidies by allowing services to continue to erode for most taxpayers and robbing existing subsidies from some to appease others. Dumb growth returns to Whatcom County.

It should also be noted that the people of Lummi Island did recognize the problems of such dumb growth and through their comprehensive planning efforts asked that Lummi Island be down zoned to protect their quality of life and their finite water source from being depleted through excessive development and drilling of more exempt wells. Exempt wells in areas where water is already over allocated is another dumb growth subsidy, but that rant will have to wait for a future blog.

So as the cries escalate for making folks on Lummi Island pay their "fair share" watch to see whether the underlying cause of such rural subsidies is going to be addressed, or whether appeasing the selfish grumblers by throwing one area at a time under the bus is a more politically feasible solution than acknowledging and correcting our dumb growth history.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

August 10, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Tuesday will be the last Council meeting until September 14th, so the agenda is packed with a number of important items, and there are a number of things that will be discussed that the public has not been privy to because they are being “added in” at the last minute.

Here are the ones that I am trying to focus on, although a million gallons of oil dumped into to a river in Michigan from a pipeline has diverted my energies significantly.

Interim Lake Whatcom Subdivision Moratorium - This “interim” moratorium has been in place and renewed every six months since 2005. About a month ago we tried to make this moratorium permanent but that failed because some Council members still don't believe that additional development in the watershed will have any negative impacts on water quality. Others argued that they didn't want to take people's property rights (in this case rights that don't even exist yet) without using taxpayers money to pay them, and they wanted more time to try to develop such a system. That is all chronicled here.

On Tuesday we will see whether there are four votes to extend the moratorium again in hopes of developing some sort of transfer of development rights (TDR) program to compensate property owners. I suspect we will know the outcome fairly early in the day since it is scheduled in the Natural Resource Committee at 9:30 AM. Both Bill Knutzen and Ward Nelson are on that Committee and one of them will have to vote in favor of this moratorium for this to pass. While Kathy Kershner has voiced support for a TDR program, she is on vacation and will not be at Tuesday's meeting, so my sense is that this will come down to Bill's vote, since Barbara Brenner, Ken Mann and I are already on record as supporting this.

There will be a public hearing on this in the evening.

Lake Whatcom Management Plan - At the evening meeting we will be asked to approve the 2010-2014 Lake Whatcom Work Plan. In general this work plan is much easier to read and figure out what is really proposed to go on for the Lake. I think it includes the programs we need to implement to address numerous water quality problems and the pending TMDL. Unfortunately while the programs are listed and catalogued there is not much real commitment to actually implement them, especially from the County. At this point it seems pretty clear that we know what needs to be done (just as we have known for years now), but unless we can beg grant money from the feds or state we really have no intention of moving forward in a timely manner.

For the five years I have been on the Council there has been an ongoing discussion about creating some sort of Stormwater Utility District around the Lake to help fund movement of these programs. This plan does not address that huge issue, and without it getting addressed this plan, like all previous plans, amounts to hoop jumping without any clear path toward success. I am considering voting no on the plan because I no longer want to be a part of the deceit the County has for years foisted on the public and other agencies about how much we care. If we cared we would develop a dedicated funding source, instead of hoping money to protect the lake will somehow magically appear.

And Now for the “Public Process? Who Needs a Stinking Public Process?” section.

Thursday afternoon, the day after the agenda for the Council meeting is made public, Sam Crawford submits a resolution to start the process for dismantling the County-wide EMS system. In his email with the resolution he said:
“I would like to discuss the attached Resolution at the Tuesday evening Council Meeting. I would like to bring it to a vote.”
While the EMS system does have huge territory issues between different groups, the system as a whole continues to deliver outstanding ambulance service county-wide. The Herald did a background piece here. There is no doubt that these issues need to be worked out, but the plan that the voters approved included a revamped ambulance advisory board made up of representatives from the cities and county and the emergency response experts that run our system, and tasked them with making recommendations regarding the budget and conflicts. That voter approved conflict resolution system has not yet been used, so in my opinion this move to dissolve the EMS system is way premature.

Even more troubling is the way the resolution was introduced so as to keep it off the publicly available agenda. An item like this that moves to do away with a voter-approved system should at a minimum be shared with the public so the public has time to comment. I have posted the proposed resolution here, because as of Saturday morning it still was not publicly available anywhere else.

10-Year UGA Review - In the same “who needs public process?” category we have another attempt by the Council majority to expand the UGAs. This is the same ordinance that they have wasted huge amounts of time on for months now, but once Sumas and Nooksack decided that they didn't want to have to pay for the legal defense of something that is already scheduled to happen next year anyway, the Council had to introduce a new ordinance to only include a chunk near Ferndale and a small piece in Birch Bay.

While there has been plenty of opportunity for developers and their consultants and attorneys to comment on this process there has only been one public hearing, and that was on an entirely different ordinance. This is also a Comprehensive Plan amendment which is supposed to go through the public process of our Planning Commission, but that hasn't happened either. So what we have on Tuesday is a new ordinance for a Comp Plan amendment, with two cities removed, a bunch of new “findings of fact,” and no hearing for the public to comment on it.

To make things even more fascinating it appears that perhaps even more changes will be made to the ordinance before it is voted on Tuesday evening. Late Friday I received a copy of an email from Barbara Brenner to the Council's attorney Karen Frakes, basically saying she thinks Sam Crawford's proposed new finding-of-fact to help justify the Birch Bay expansion is a good idea. You can read that email exchange and the new "fact" here. What's more fascinating is that the language in Mr Crawford's new finding of fact which he sent to Ms Brenner on 8/5 is nearly exactly the same language from a letter submitted to the entire Council from the developers consultant on 8/6, so I am left to assume that Mr Crawford and developers consultants worked together on this new “fact” which will be voted on with no public review or hearing.

Public process? Who needs it when you have developer's consultants and lawyers to give you the facts? I'm sure they are looking out for what's best for the public.

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 27, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Breaking News - The UGA Proposal that the Council has wasted months on, shrinks even further and is pulled from agenda.

This afternoon the Council got an email saying that the ordinance that the relatively new Council majority has spent months preparing to overturn the UGA reductions that the previous Council passed has been pulled from the agenda. Seems like the cities of Sumas and Nooksack reviewed comments received in the past few weeks and have decided there is little reason to spend taxpayer money to defend a poorly written County ordinance, when they can most likely get the same results next year during the already planned UGA review. Could Ferndale be so wise?

Now the Council majority has to reintroduce a new ordinance that only includes the expansion of the Ferndale UGA and a small area in Birch Bay, and I'm guessing schedule another hearing. Quite the waste of time from visions of expanding UGAs by thousands of acres - West Blaine, Caitac, Yew Street Rd etc - to swapping a UGA reserve in Ferndale to a regular UGA. How many thousands of taxpayer dollars were wasted on this boondoggle that is already scheduled for next year? Now that's some fiscally conservative planning.

UPDATE - 7/2710 5:45 PM
It appears there will not be an additional hearing on the new reduced UGA expansion ordinance. Legal counsel says we only are required to have a hearing if we are adding additions to an ordinance, but since we are just removing two cities and changing many of the findings that is not considered a substantive change.

Monday, July 12, 2010

July13, 2010 - Issue of the Week

The Shift from Protecting Farmland to Protecting Development?

First, apologies for not keeping up with the blog of late. Because of the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico the U.S. Congress has ramped up oversight of everything to do with oil, so over the past few weeks I have been involved with six Congressional hearings in DC concerning pipeline safety. Not much time for much else, but its important to try to strike while Congress has an interest, so perhaps something positive can come from such a terrible disaster.

So what's happening this week? Well certainly what is getting the most attention is the hearing and probable vote to pander to development interests and expand Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) beyond what the Council and County Executive came up with last year. Last year's decision brought the County into compliance with state law regarding the UGAs. But instead of attending to other growth issues the County is still out of compliance with this new pro-sprawl Council has wasted nearly eight months revisiting a decisions that the County is already required to revisit again in 2011 - next year. Now that's fiscally non-conservative planning for you.

While I suspect that issue is a done deal the other idea that will be discussed on Tuesday is Ward Nelson's idea of getting rid of the Agriculture Protection Overlay (APO). The APO applies to land in the rural zone that has valuable agricultural soils. The main idea is in the areas with this valuable farmland require people who are intent on subdividing their property to cluster the homes to allow a large portion of the land to still be available in the future for farming. While clustering certainly isn't the silver bullet to protect all farmland, in many cases it is one tool that can be used to preserve large chunks of land that can remain in productive farmland, either by the owner or leased to a local farmer.

The APO was one of the ways the County "designated" farmland to comply with the Growth Management Act. If the Council changes this designation I suspect it would create troubles for staying in compliance with this important aspect of protecting rural character and resource lands.

This should be a fascinating discussion with Ward Nelson now wanting to get rid of the APO overlay because he feels the tool is not worth the difficulty it creates for people who want to subdivide and develop their property. Sam Crawford has already questioned whether the goal of protecting 100,000 acres of farmland is even important. He also has repeatedly stated his intent to halt the funding for the Purchase of Development Rights program, which is one of the few farmland protection tools we have that is actually working. Where the rest of the Council falls in this farmland protection versus do nothing to impede development in rural areas argument I can't predict.

The discussion will be in the Natural Resources Committee at 9:30 AM in the Council Chambers.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

June 15, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Does the Whatcom County Council Care About Lake Whatcom? Soon we'll know.

At last week's Council meeting the Council voted 6-1 to reject a downzone in the Lake Whatcom watershed that would have helped prevent somewhere between 100-200 potential new homes. After years of this being in place as a temporary moratorium I was the only vote in favor of removing this potential development from the watershed through this downzone.

As anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention would know the quality of the Lake has been declining for years, and all the science and all the studies show the decline is caused by development around the lake. The County already has legal obligations to control pollution into the lake under our stormwater permit, and we will soon also be under legal obligation to clean up the lake from both the Department of Ecology and the U.S. EPA under the pending TMDL. The key to meeting our cleanup requirements will be to institute programs that make the lake think that 80-90 percent of all the development has been removed and natural conditions exist. This is a huge undertaking, and adding more development to the watershed is just plain ignorant from both the standpoint of what is good for the lake, and also what is good for the taxpayers who will have to pick up the cleanup tab.

The vote to not make years of a temporary moratorium permanent certainly is the first indication that the new Council may care little about the state of Lake Whatcom. In July, the Council will have to decide how much funding to request for the Lake in the coming two years. That will be another interesting indication, especially with Chairman Crawford wanting to reduce spending by nearly a million dollars a year in the fund that pays for lake protection. Then toward the end of the summer the still in place moratorium on subdivisions in the watershed will come up for another vote to renew it or let it lapse and allow those homes to be built. That will be the final indication of where this Council really stands.

I am sure the Department of Ecology and the U.S. EPA are watching all this with some fascination, wondering when they need to step in and remind the County of its obligations.

Of course there is some serious smoke and mirrors in play. Like last week, as an excuse to vote against the permanent moratorium, some members stated they just wanted time to work on a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) program. While this may sound like a legitimate idea, and I will certainly vote to extend the temporary moratorium to give them the chance to get such a TDR program in place, anyone who has actually studied TDR programs doubts this can be accomplished. It is even more unlikely that these Council members can create such a program without the help of our rapidly dwindling Planning Department staff. Even if they do manage to draft a good ordinance it would be hard to succeed without staff to come up with interlocal agreements, and ongoing promotion and care.

Anyone who has studied TDR programs would realize that we have way too may desired sending areas (Lake Whatcom watershed, prime farmland, Drayton Harbor, etc) and way too few (none) receiving areas. Without receiving areas TDRs will never work, and there is no reason for the cities or developers to help create receiving areas as long as the County Council continues to provide them with more and more high density areas for free. For years I have said that if we are serious about these types of programs (TDRs and PDRs) then we need to make sure we tie the development of receiving areas to upzones. Most every study I have seen agrees that upzones need to be tied to these programs if there is much hope of substantial success. Unfortunately the Council seems unwilling to do this, and continually gives away all our potential leverage. If Council members are really interested in creating a viable TDR program then I hope they will delay the vote on the expansion of the UGAs around Ferndale, Birch Bay, Nooksack and Sumas until we can add language to use these areas as receiving areas, and develop the needed interlocal agreements. If they are unwilling to do that then all this talk about creating TDRs is nonsense.

The County produced its own feasibilty study on the potential of TDR programs in early 2009. It can be found on the County's Agricultural Program website at: That study also concludes that TDR programs will be problematic here without some tie to UGA expansion and dealing with the tens of thousands of development rights previous councils have approved in the rural areas. Again, the Council has been unwilling to deal with either of these issues, both of which undermine viable TDR programs.

Below is a link to the Department of Commerce's TDR clearinghouse page, which contains all sorts of information. Below the link are some snippets of information I pulled from the referenced report regarding TDR programs that might help you understand this better than I have explained it above.

From the report - Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) in Washington State: Overview, Benefits, and Challenges

“While many TDR programs have been enacted, not all have not been successful. In fact, only a handful of programs have protected 5,000 or more acres of land, and some have not generated a single transaction.”

Inadequate receiving areas. Without adequate receiving areas, there is no market for TDRs and a TDR program cannot succeed. A few second-generation TDR programs require the purchase of TDR credits as a condition of any upzones. ... This type of mechanism can help address the need for receiving site designations and take advantage of demand for upzones.”

“In areas where zoning already allows development beyond what the market can support, there is no value to a developer in participating in TDR. Similarly, if rezones to higher densities can be achieved without participation in TDR, interest in TDR will be undercut.

“Lack of program leadership and transaction support. A review of TDR history shows clearly that adopting legislation to enact a TDR program is not enough, by itself, to ensure program success. Active support and leadership are needed to foster a robust marketplace for TDR transactions. Especially at the outset of a program, support is needed to overcome the natural uncertainty that property owners may feel in considering a new and unfamiliar form of real-estate transaction, and the unease that developers may feel about a new step or option in the development permitting process. Public education, program advocacy, and transaction support appear to be key ingredients in successful programs, especially when the program is young.”

“Ensure Zoning Compatibility Some jurisdictions have initiated TDR programs with a large-scale downzoning of resource-based lands to be preserved, using TDR as a means of compensating landowners for the development restrictions and creating a strong incentive for participating. (For example, Montgomery County [MD] downzoned its agricultural lands from 1 unit per 5 acres to 1 per 25, allowing TDR sales based on the original zoning density.) While widespread downzoning may not be feasible in many areas, zoning must be consistent with the long-term conservation goals of a local plan. Landowners wishing to continue farming or forestry activities may resist the idea of a permanent development restriction (conservation easement) on their property. For example, where zoning in an agricultural area allows 1 unit per 5 acres, property owners may well expect incompatible development on neighboring properties, which would undermine the long-term viability of farming in the area and thus make a conservation easement unattractive. Furthermore, the smaller the lot sizes allowed, the greater the number of development rights that must be assigned - perhaps exceeding the capacity of receiving areas to accept these credits.”

On the receiving side, zoning and TDR participation are also closely linked. As noted in the section above, zoning that matches or exceeds market demand for development negates the profit a developer might achieve through TDR. Reducing the base zoning in TDR receiving areas is an option to reinforce the profit incentive. However, downzoning may not always be feasible and may even conflict with city planning objectives that favor concentrated growth. An alternative approach is to incorporate TDR provisions into any rezone approved by a jurisdiction, whether through a comprehensive plan update or through individual requests for zoning reclassification (see Pierce County and Malibu examples above). Under this approach, a portion of the increased value created by the increase in development potential can be allocated to support regional conservation goals. If, on the other hand, developers are successful in achieving such upzones without participation in TDR, there will be little demand to fuel the TDR marketplace.”

Sunday, May 23, 2010

May 25, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Protecting Farmland - One Small Piece At A Time

On Tuesday the Whatcom County Council will again take up one of the tools available for protecting our local farmland when we review this year's applications for the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) Program. Through this program the County uses money from the Conservation Futures Fund to purchase development rights (the right to put a house on the property) from land that falls within targeted areas for protection. This program only deals with willing sellers of such rights, and we don't buy the actual land we just buy the right to put a house on the land that goes with the current zoning (example - a 40 acres piece in an area zoned 1 house/ 5 acres would have 8 development rights). A conservation easement is then placed on the property making it impossible to develop that land in the future.

This is a relatively new program with the first development rights purchased in 2004. In the past six years about 89 development rights have been purchased, protecting 671 acres of good farmland from future development. The cost was about $4.5 million, with the County paying about half of that since the program always tries to use matching state and federal grant money that is available for such purposes. As you can see it is not a cheap program with each development right (each property gets a separate appraisal) costing in the neighborhood of $50,000.

Every survey taken in the County in the past ten years has shown strong support for protecting farmland, and all the various agriculture advisory committees support this program as one way of doing it. This program is one way that the larger community can help farmers keep farming by providing a capital infusion as payment for their development rights. It's a win-win with the farmer getting money needed to keep farming, and the community ensuring that the valuable farmland will be there to farm in the future.

Studies of the prime agricultural soils in the county show that we have about 4000 development rights within those target areas. At $50,000 per development right it would cost about $200 million to protect all that prime farmland through this program. That's where the rub comes in. Normally the Conservation Futures Fund generates about $1 million a year for such purposes, but this year it will only generate a little over $400,000 because the Council majority decided to shift money from the fund last year to other purposes such as law enforcement, courts, planning, the Health Department, etc. It is unclear if that shift will remain in place or whether the money will be redirected to the real purposes of conservation. Even at $1 million per year it would take us way more time than we have got to protect farmland through this program alone.

Some on the Council have said that the PDR program is so slow and ineffectual that why bother with it at all. Sam Crawford has announced his intention numerous times in the past year to put a halt to this program, and has also stated that he thinks it is too late to protect farmland here so let's just move on. On Tuesday we will for the first time find out where the rest of the Council stands on this PDR program. Most everyone, except Mr. Crawford, has given lip service to protecting farmland, so on Tuesday we will find out whether it was just lip service or whether they are willing to sign the check or have other ideas how to do it. For those on the Council who supported gutting the Conservation Future Fund this will be a difficult conundrum.

Personally I think this is a great program to allow all of us who say we want to protect farmland prove it by spending some of our tax dollars to support those willing farmers who are also proving they want the land there for the future of farming also. In 2010 this tax will cost the owner of a $300,000 property $5.14 to help conserve farmland and other valuable conservation areas. Seems like a good investment in the future to me. Yes, progress with just this program is slow, but any progress is better than the alternative.

If you want to read the information about the program and see what properties are up for possible inclusion this year, you can find that information by clicking here. This will be discussed in the Natural Resource Committee at 9:30 AM in the Council Chambers on Tuesday.

***** UPDATE 5/25/10 *******

The Council's Natural Resource Committee (Nelson, Knutzen, Weimer) has recommended unanimously a recommendation that the full Council approve the resolution that will allow the staff to move forward with the evaluation of these proposed properties for possible purchase of these easements. The Council in the future will have to approve the final purchase and sale agreement with the property owners.

There was an interesting discussion of where the Conservation Futures fund came from and whether it was voter approved or not. Here is some background on the Conservation Futures Fund which is used to buy these types of development rights on farmland, as well other park and conservation areas.

• The Conservation Futures tax was approved by the County Council by ordinance in 1992

• After complaints about taxation without a vote of the people the Council sent the tax to a non-binding vote in 1996. The tax was approved by 57.7% f the voters.

• In 2001 there was an attempt by the County Council to budget expenditures from the fund so 50% would be spent on farmland protection and 50 % on other parks/conservation lands. This ordinance was passed by the Council, but was then vetoed by Executive Kremen because of concerns about losing flexibility about how the money could be used.

* The original ordinance, later approved by the voters, set the levy rate at $0.0625 per $1000 of valuation. Or $18.75 per year for a $300,000 property. That rate was collected from 1993 through 2001. In 2002 because of Tim Eyman's I-747 the rate began to decrease. By 2009 the levy rate had fallen to $0.03949 per $1000 of value, or $11.85 on a $3000,000 property.

* For 2010 the rate was further decrease by the Council to $0.01714 per $1000 of value, or $5.14 for a $300,000 property. This was done to shift some of this money to other general fund purposes.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

May 11. 2010 - Issue of the Week

Not much of a blog this week. I was invited a couple days ago to testify to a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives about pipeline safety on May 20th and 150 copies of my testimony needs to be delivered to them in DC by next Monday. I've pretty much got blinders on reviewing ten years of pipeline incident data, so with that and the 428 pages in my Council packet this week I have little time for this blog.

A few items on this week's Council agenda that are worth watching.

The same items I wrote about last time limiting the Council's ability to use banked capacity will be voted on this week. The vote was postponed last time because Council member Brenner had not read the proposals carefully enough and didn't realize that the proposals would become effective immediately instead of putting it on the ballot this fall for a vote. She asked for more time to consider it, and the majority of the council gave her two more weeks.

In the Natural Resources Committee meeting at 9:30 AM on Tuesday there will be a presentation by Farm Friends on their research into natural resource banking. This is an interesting concept that would work to save farmland by creating markets (kind of like carbon trading) that would create such protection. Hopefully Farm Friends have come up with some concrete ideas for implementing this idea, in the past it was quite unclear where the market (millions of dollars necessary) to protect the farmland would come from.

At 11 AM in the Finance Committee we will be talking about spending nearly $4 million on widening Lincoln Road out near Birch Bay. On the one hand this has been the top priority of the Birch Bay community for a long while and has been delayed multiple times. This project made more sense when it was part of a larger project that included a developer funded cnnnector road to shunt traffic from Birch Bay Village to Lincoln Road to reduce traffic on Birch Bay Drive. Unfortunately the developer funded portion of the project is on indefinite hold because the development has pretty much totally dried up. Without that part of the project this road widening is mainly to serve residents of Blaine that live in Semiahmoo and pay no taxes to the County for such road projects.

We will also be talking about applying for a $300,000 grant that if awarded would require the County to provide $300,000 of matching funds. The grant would be used to help acquire part of an old golf course along the Nooksack River in Ferndale for the development of Riverplace Park. I think this is a prime opportunity for a future park, but I do have some significant concerns about the funding sources to be used for the match. On the application it lists Conservation Futures funding as the source, yet the voter approved Conservation Futures fund has been seriously diverted into the General Fund to cover current holes in the budget. There is also mention of using Flood Funds for the match because the area is an "important area to preserve for off river storage capacity during flood events." The area is in the flood plain and can not be developed, so the storage capacity during floods will be there with or without the Flood Fund being used to help purchase it.

Finally, at 1 PM we will be talking about a draft ordinance to once again amend the Comprehensive Plan to expand the Urban Growth Areas around Sumas, Nooksack, Birch Bay and Ferndale. This is the current Council majority's plan to expand UGAs beyond what the County Executive's plan called for last year and what the previous Council approved.

Should be a full day.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

April 27. 2010 - Issue of the Week

Really Protecting People's Wallets, or Playing Politics?

On Tuesday the County Council will hold two public hearings on proposals being brought forward by five members of the Council (wonder how that vote will turn out?) to limit tax increases in the General Fund, Road Fund, Conservation Futures Fund and Flood Control Fund to 1% each year, including banked capacity, unless a non-binding vote of the people is held.

State law already limits tax increases to 1% without a vote, but this takes that one step further by also limiting the amount of banked capacity the County can tap into. Banked capacity is the amount of untaken increases (the 1% possible each year) that a local government has not taken. State law allows fiscally conservative governments that hold the line on tax increases to bank, or save up, these untaken small increases in case they are needed in the future. Most local government entities (Bellingham, the small cities, school and fire districts, etc) take their 1% each year so they have no banked capacity to draw on, but the County has been extremely conservative in its spending and now the Council majority wants to make sure we can't tap those reserves without asking the people if they approve.

Supporting such “voter oversight” is extremely politically popular (which is why this is being brought forward), and it also gets elected officials off the hook for having to make tough decisions. But this version is again poorly written so it conflicts with the Charter, provides precious little real fiscal protection, and more importantly is being brought forward by a group that has every intention of slipping a huge tax burden into all of our pockets with one hand with no recognition of the future financial problem they are creating. I am not sure how I am going to vote on this on Tuesday because on the one hand I have no problem with voters having more involvement in their government, but on the other hand I wish they were being given a real say instead of a Fox News type slogan to vote on with little real meaning.

A few problems

First off, the County Charter (Section 6.10) does not require the Executive to provide a budget to the Council for consideration until the middle of October, and that is the schedule that has been historically followed. Under this proposal to limit taxes the Council would have to decide by July 1st of each year whether to ask the voters to approve a tax increase. How is the Council supposed to do that if they don't have a clue about the proposed budget until several months later? It also conflicts with Charter Section 6.20, which doesn't require departments to provide budget information to the Executive until mid-August. There is no mention of a plan to change the Charter, or ask the Executive to move the budget process up several months. Perhaps they just plan to put a tax increase on the ballot every year just in case once they see the budget it is needed? Beats me how this is supposed to work, or perhaps it is another one of those proposals that isn't really planned to work at all.

There really is little taxpayer protection here either since it is a non-binding vote that can be ignored. The other reality is that this, or any future Council, can change these rules to do away with this vote any time they want. I also believe that the voters have elected people they want to spend the time to study such issues and then make the hard decisions necessary regarding taxes and spending, and not punt the tough decisions to the voters each year to avoid political fallout. In many ways this represents a cowardly approach to governing.

The tax increase levels that would trigger such votes are very small, and the potential increases are not very great. For instance, the current levy rate for the Flood Fund is $0.16299/$1000 of assessed value. This means that an owner of a $250,000 home pays $40.75 each year. Under this proposal if the council decided (like they did a couple years ago) that more money was needed to make up for past flood expenses, do work to protect public and private property from clear potential future flood damage, meet state and federal requirements for protection of Lake Whatcom, salmon, etc, the Council would have to spend taxpayer money on an election to ask permission to use our saved reserve capacity to raise the rate more than 1% or 41 cents per year for the owner of the $250,000 house. While a whopping 41 cent tax increase or a really HUGE 10% $4/year tax increase may seem important to many people, how many of these same people (including these same Council members) have spent the time to know how the money is actually being spent.

If the Council decided to increase every possible cent of tax in every fund that they legally could, a possibility that I don't think anyone who knows much about County government thinks is even remotely possible, it would cost about $7/month for that $250,000 property owner. Just saying ”no” is a whole lot easier than knowing what you are talking about.

Finally many of the same Council members who are pushing this feel good initiative are also pushing for a huge expansion of urban growth throughout the County. They are doing this with no plans to ask the developers of all this growth to pay the associated costs. So the taxpayers will have to foot the bill for increased sheriff protection, new roads and all the other government services that are more expensive to provide in rural areas than in cities. If these council members were really so concerned about the taxpayers pocketbook perhaps they should try to look out for the taxpayers in these development schemes instead of just trying to help out a few wealthy developers. Where are the associated impact fees to protect the taxpayers? Where are the transfers of development rights for this growth to protect the taxpayers along with helping protect farmland or Lake Whatcom? Either they plan to be going to the voters a lot in the coming years, or they plan to allow existing levels of all kinds of service to be undermined in their rush to please a few developers.

Watch carefully Tuesday, anyone that votes in favor of these proposals, while at the same time supports these outrageous growth proposals, is a political opportunist not a true fiscal conservative.

Perhaps we should have a baby kissing, flag waving, apple pie eating event immediately after the vote?

Friday, April 9, 2010

April 13, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Are You Part of the “Affected Community?”

This is shaping up to be quite a week for the future of Whatcom County. As you probably know late last year the County Council adopted new Urban Growth Area (UGA) boundaries throughout the county based pretty much on the recommendations of Pete Kremen and his planning department staff. I thought these new boundaries did a good job of matching the desires of developers and the cities with the extensive analysis done regarding how much additional area for urban growth was actually needed.

Of course not everyone was happy, especially some large developers who have a variety of proposals which could have made them significant piles of cash. Those proposals were not included in the new UGAs because the current analysis does not justify the need for them, or the public cost for proceeding at this time.

Here in Whatcom County these speculative developers are used to getting their way and the balanced approach that the County has been using for the past few years to try to comply with the law under the Growth Management Act has slowed them down. There now appears to be a concerted effort by these speculators, and the land use consultants and attorneys they fund, to once again return the County to the good old days when they can implement their schemes with little thought of what may be good for the community as a whole.

Below is just one example of the new push to once again marginalize the County Planning Department, and perhaps push out the planners we have who have tried so hard to balance the needs of the whole community. Pay close attention how these speculators refer to themselves as the “affected community” as if the rest of us that have to pay for the huge costs (roads, sheriff, fire, etc) to support their money making schemes are not part of the community. Hopefully my fellow council members and the County Executive can see through this blatant attempt by the development community to remove any barrier in their path and install themselves as the “advisors” for how this community grows.

Dear Council and Executive Kremen:

We attended your Planning and Development Committee meeting held at 3:00 p.m., March 30, 2010.

Why is it that your Planning Director and Planning Department continue to fail to provide the County Council with a full range of options available to it when dealing with the Rural Element and LAMIRDs? For quite some time, the Council has requested options. What you get in return is restrictions, limitations, and no's. Why doesn't the Council hire someone to give it straight, unbiased answers, without promoting some hidden agenda? There are plenty of people around who could provide that service.

What does Gary Davis mean when he says that the recommendation of the old Planning Commission is based on policy determinations that group made? Would it be too much trouble for him to explain to the Council exactly what those policy determinations were and why the current Council is bound by them? After all, it is the County Council that sets policy, the Planning Commission only recommends.

As many of you know, there is great distrust of the Planning Department and its Director in the affected community. You really should consider another alternative for your advisor.

Thanks for your consideration.

Belcher Swanson Law Firm, P.L.L.C.
900 Dupont Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
(360) 734-6390
(360) 671-0753

On Monday the Council will spend a good deal of the day having discussions with many of these developers and their hired guns about possible “settlements” to their various complaints. I hope the new Council majority will remember that there is a much larger “affected community” that they are also supposed to consider.

******** UPDATE 4/11/2010 ***********

I was in Texas Wednesday through Friday, so I stopped by the Council office on Saturday to pick up my packet. In my box I found a copy of a letter (click here to download) to Executive Kremen signed by three Council members (Crawford, Nelson, Kershner). The letter was a strongly worded criticism (I would suspect drafted by a land use attorney) of the Planning Director's handling of some very complicated vesting issues. It appears that these council members have also now joined with the development community to try to push out one of the best planning directors Whatcom County has had in years.

The vesting issues that the letter purports to be about are very complicated and I don't want to get into them here. Suffice it to say that their arguments are very one sided, and the proposed solution that is provided is no solution at all but a clever way to let developers do whatever they like while providing an appearance that the County still has some control or concern for public health and the environment.

What is more concerning about this letter is that a minority of the Council clearly suggests that the Planning Director take specific action. In one place the letter states "we call upon the Planning Director to implement land-use control regulations in a manner..." It goes on to say that "This is a reasonable request and expectation on the part of the legislative body of Whatcom County." This is a pretty outrageous letter considering the entire Council has not yet discussed this issue or taken any formal action as spelled out in the code that would give these members the authority to speak on behalf of "the legislative body of Whatcom County." The County Charter (Article 2, Section 2.24) also clearly states:
"... individual councilmembers shall not interfere in the administration of the executive branch. They shall not give orders to or direct, either publicly or privately, any officer, or employee subject to the direction and supervision of the County Executive..."
These three clearly owe the entire Council and the Executive an apology for overstepping their authority!

When David Stalheim was first hired I was quite skeptical of his abilities, and some of his early personnel decisions within his department concerned me. I kept these concerns to myself because the Charter and Code clearly make this the realm of the County Executive and also make it clear that the Council should not meddle in these areas. Over the past couple years Mr Stalheim's management and grasp of planning issues has continually impressed me as he created an almost entirely new planning department which has operated very well in the midst of hugely controversial issues they inherited. If there ever was a time to keep such an individual at the helm now is it, and I hope Mr Kremen rejects this clear attempt by the development community to once again create chaos so they can have their way, and gives his full support to the individual he made such a wise decision hiring in the first place.

******** UPDATE 4/21/2010 ***********
Much has transpired since I wrote the original post above. The new majority of the Council has set in motion a sweeping giveaway to the development, I mean "affected," community. With no thought of asking for any public benefit (TDRs, PDRs, impact fees, etc) they have set in motion a settlement that will make some developers rich and ultimately cost taxpayers a bundle. Hopefully Executive Kremen will refuse to play this game! For an extremely well written account of this entire giveaway check out this week's Gristle in the Cascadia Weekly.

Monday, March 29, 2010

March 30, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Jumping Through Hoops, or When Planning is a Joke

On Tuesday the County Council will have a public hearing, and most likely adopt, a new Comprehensive Solid & Hazardous Waste Management Plan for the county and all the cities (click here to download). While garbage and recycling in this county represents tens of millions of dollars there has been no public outreach to find out what people want, and there have been no recent surveys to find out how well the system works or if it could be more cost effective. In fact we don't even know how much recycling we do around here, or where the collected materials go.

On Tuesday our Public Works Department hopes no one shows up and that the Council just passes this so they don't have to think about recycling and garbage any more for a few years. This plan was due years ago, but because of lack of priority, lack of care and lack of trained solid waste staff it drug on past the point that those who may have cared to begin with even realize it is now up for adoption. And it better pass or our Public Works Department is really in trouble since as of May the position for the one Solid Waste employee they have is being eliminated, and the responsibility for all the garbage collection, recycling and hazardous waste in the county will be in the hands of a Public Works secretary (that's not mentioned in the Plan).

Most plans that the Council adopts contain clear goals, objectives, data analysis, specific programs, priorities, measurable accomplishments and budgets. There is none of that in this plan. It is just a compilation of good sounding ideas thrown together with no clear idea of what the emphasis is, how it will be implemented or paid for, or how to know if anything has been successful. It is not a plan it is a list of various ideas and factoids cut and pasted from various other documents for the purpose of meeting some planning requirement. Nothing to get excited about, or hang your hat on, or to hold anyone accountable for.

Perhaps some specifics will help illustrate my point:

The highest goal of any solid or hazardous waste management program is always to implement programs that prevent waste from being generated. Back in the early 90s Whatcom County won many state and national awards for these types of programs. In this Plan it states:

“This plan assumes that there is, and will continue to be, public support for waste and pollution prevention programs. Therefore it calls for pollution prevention and waste prevention programs for both solid waste and moderate risk wastes.”

That sounds pretty good, except that there are no such programs described in the Plan and what is there are six generic bulleted “strategies” that are copied exactly from the Snohomish County Plan (section 2, page 25).

There is also no explanation in the Plan of why if waste prevention is the highest priority all the money and programs that fall under that category have been cut in the past year. Or why the County is now spending more money on litter than on waste prevention and recycling. Seems like a comprehensive plan would explain what is really occurring instead of some generic ideals copied exactly from a different county with a much different solid waste system.

The Plan also does not explain why if pollution prevention is the highest goal there are no programs included along those lines like there were in the past, but nearly the entire moderate risk waste budget has been taken up by an increasingly expensive hazardous waste disposal program. What the plan doesn't say is that we have made the decision here not to try to provide incentives or educate people about not buying hazardous waste to begin with, but to make it easy for a small proportion of people (less than 7000 in 2008) to dispose of stuff for free when they buy too much. In other words waste and pollution prevention programs (the highest priority) for the entire population have been cancelled so we can afford to subsidize the free disposal of hazardous waste for less than 5% of the population. While proper disposal of this stuff is certainly important there is no consideration of other ways to do it cheaper. For example in Snohomish County they have a similar facility that is open far fewer hours to serve a larger population.

One last example: For years those concerned with Whatcom County's solid waste management have pointed out that the funding for the entire system is based on a universal collection ordinance that requires all people in the county to have garbage and recycling service unless they fill out an exemption form showing how they deal with their waste in a responsible manner. Previous studies (nothing in this plan) have shown that up to 20% of the households in the unincorporated areas ignore this requirement and the County does nothing to enforce it. This situation recently led to the collapse of the garbage and recycling service in Point Roberts leaving no collection service at all. In their review of this situation the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission stated:

“These ordinances, together with significant non compliance and a lack of enforcement, create a barrier for any certificated solid waste collection company to develop a sustainable customer base. The failure of the County to recognize and address the detrimental impact of its County-wide ordinances and policies on solid waste collection in the small community of Point Roberts has created a very difficult situation. “

While the location and population base in Point Roberts in particular makes this situation worse it is a problem throughout the county, leading to significant illegal dumping. It also means that our system is under-funded, that those who do have garbage pickup are subsidizing the programs of those who don't, and that collection costs more for those who do follow the law. You would think such a recognized basic problem would be addressed in a Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan. There is no mention of this problem in this proposed plan.

I suspect no one will show up for this hearing because the County has done a good job of dragging this out for so long and undermining all attempts to turn this into a legitimate plan that most citizens who initially tried to have a say in this have burned out and went away. The real meat of this Plan is the “Five Year Plan” portion which ironically covers the years 2008 - 2012. By the time this Plan is passed nearly half of the five year planning period will be over before anyone even knows what it is we are suppose to be doing. But don't worry about that - there really was no plan to do anything during that period anyway.

The County could have saved a lot of time and money if they just submitted a one page document that said “Be Happy - Recycle” on it with perhaps a big smiley face.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 16, 2010 - Issue of the Week

The Conflict Between Reality and Wishful Thinking

**** Warning - Recently someone referred to me as a "policy wonk." I took this as a complement even though I am not sure it was meant that way. The following is a long, wonkish post, because in reality most of our problems are not simple and can not be explained in sound bites. But for those of you who are not wonks here is the Twitter version:
We are running out of oil. Soon this will force us to address large increases in costs and associated economic and social disruptions. Can county government think ahead of the curve to lessen these impacts here in Whatcom County?
The full version

On Tuesday morning at 9:30 the County's Natural Resource Committee will be treated to the sobering news that we are running out of oil and we better start planning differently if we don't want to find ourselves in a world of hurt. Later in the day we will consider whether we should continue to move forward with planning to allow as many people as possible move to far flung parts of the County ensuring the need for more driving, more expensive roads projects and services to remote areas. It will be fascinating to see how the different Council members try to make these conflicting ideas jibe in their policy decisions.

We will start the day off with a special presentation from the Energy Resource Scarcity/ Peak Oil (ERSPO) Task Force. This is a group that was formed jointly by the County and City of Bellingham and they spent well over a year drafting a report meant to change the way we think about our future. As the report states:
“Our current economic, social and political institutions expect that reliable, abundant energy supplies will be readily available to meet continued demand. Whatcom County residents and businesses depend on oil and natural gas for their economic welfare and many of their most critical activities, including transportation, food supply, water delivery, health care and electricity. It is too rarely acknowledged that global oil and natural gas reserves are finite and that sufficient substitutes are unlikely to be widely available in the near future.

Most reports and studies on peak oil and energy resource scarcity convey a strong sense of urgency in planning for a future with dramatically reduced petroleum supplies.

The era of relatively plentiful and inexpensive oil will soon be over, and the sooner the community acknowledges and addresses this reality, the more secure our future will be.”
While sobering, the report is also well written, well documented, and provides a blueprint for acting locally to lessen the impacts of the coming energy constrictions and associated price increases. It is clear we need to start thinking about transportation, our economy, farming, and basic services differently if we are going to avoid major upheavals during this transition. You can download a copy of the entire report here. The main question isn't whether this is the truth, or even when it will happen, but whether government can rethink years of planning assumptions that energy is pretty much free and transportation is cheap. To quote a well known green alarmist:
“One thing is clear, the era of easy oil is over. What we all do next will determine how well we meet the energy needs of the entire world in this next century and beyond”
David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO, Chevron
None of this should come as a great surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, but in a community that loves to love its refineries it can be hard to accept. We certainly have all seen the price of gas increase dramatically in the past few years as access to cheap and easy oil decreases. Just this week a story out of Alaska states:
“Less and less oil is flowing through that engineering masterpiece that is the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, built in the 1970s to link the North Slope's liquid gold with insatiable markets.

And at some point in the near future -- maybe as soon as 2014 -- flow is expected to dwindle enough to cause potentially major operational issues.

Flow, or throughput, peaked in 1988 at 2.1 million barrels per day from the Slope to Valdez. That rate has dropped to about 680,000 barrels per day, and is expected to continue sliding five and half percent per year, based on numbers provided to Alyeska by producers and the state Department of Revenue.” Full story here
This translates to a problem for our local refineries that are fed primarily by Alaska. Locally Trans Mountain pipeline has expanded their capacity to deliver crude oil from British Columbia and the tar sands of Alberta to Whatcom and Skagit Counties, but that won't make up the difference and that oil is much more costly to produce. Enbridge, the current majority owner of the Olympic Pipeline, is floating a variety of schemes to move tar sands oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia where it would be loaded on tankers. That oil could head to Cherry Point, but currently all the discussion seems to indicate that the Asian markets are willing to pay more, and these are private companies who are trying to maximize their profits.

Putting aside the tremendous economic and environmental problems associated with milking oil from the tar sands in Alberta it would also appear that while we were living high off the Alaska oil hog other parts of the country snuck in and stole the rights to that Alberta oil before we even thought about wanting it. The first indication of this was when our local BP refinery lost out on a major expansion to handle such oil to another BP refinery in the Midwest. Now there are thousands of miles of very large new pipelines being built from Alberta to the Midwest and Gulf Coast.

But what does all that have to do with the County Council you ask? Well you must have noticed that we all worship the taxes and jobs the local refineries provide this community. Just last month the majority of the Council went nearly apoplectic when the state legislature discussed placing a pass through tax on our refineries. The cries of “it will cost jobs”, “It will undermine our tax base,” and my personal favorite “they will move the refineries to Indonesia” was heard throughout the courthouse with much gnashing of teeth. Some on the Council have even threatened to pull out of the Washington State Association of Counties over the whole thing. How will these same councilors react to the even more threatening message in this report that oil is dwindling. Will they refuse to believe it, blame environmentalists for too many regulations, hope to be out of office before it manifests itself, or look for a way to transition these valuable jobs to other forms of energy production?

At this same meeting we will also be discussing and voting on various land use proposals, some of which will allow hundreds of people to live in areas far from urban services. One of the recommendations in the ERSPO report is:
“Foster land use patterns and transportation systems that will make it easier for people to shift trips from autos and trucks to other types of transport.”
How will the Council incorporate this information into land use decisions. Will they continue to push for developments such as Semiahmoo 2 that will put hundreds of people in an area far from where they work and shop. What about spending vast amounts of money on road infrastructure for such developments if indeed the use, or at least the size of cars is going to change dramatically in the next decade.

Right now the County is planning to spend nearly $6 million on one short section of Lincoln Road (between Birch Bay and Blaine) to increase safety since people in the area have complained for years that the current road is too narrow (like roads all over the county) for today's large vehicles and they often are driving travel travelers on this road. If ERSPO is correct it would seem large vehicles and travel trailers will soon be a thing of the past, so should this money be spent to accommodate these soon to be dinosaurs?

This same stretch of Lincoln Road it is claimed is needed to allow people from this area to get to I-5 faster because most of them are still working in Bellingham or Vancouver - 25+ miles away. In light of ERSPO would we be better off using the $6 million trying to create other forms of transportation? Should we be trying to make it clear to people that living in a place where you need to use 2 gallons of oil each day to get to your job is not a very good choice for yourself or for society? To play it safe (and be fiscally conservative) in a time of uncertainty should we tell the people of the area that the best safety option at this time is for them to just slow down a little bit and plan more time to get to their far off jobs and errands?

These of course are the types of questions (and they are just the tip of the iceberg) that local politicians hate, because to be addressed they require a shift in what we have all come to think of as our normal business and lifestyles. While we may all acknowledge that change happens, none of us really like it very much and government in particular seems to do whatever is possible to avoid it.

So will local county government embrace ERSPO and change the way it plans, or do what government often does and emulate the ostrich?

One final thought that shows how backwards our county government efforts are in light of ERSPO. I recently received my tax bill from the County. It shows that I owe the County $223.95 for the current expense fund that basically goes to pay for law enforcement, courts, public health, water quality - the basic necessities. It also shows that I owe $308.49 for County Roads. Why in the world am I being taxed 30% more for roads than for the basic necessities?

The ERSPO presentation will start at 9:30 AM on Tuesday in the Council Chambers. Hope to see you there.

-------------UPDATE AFTER PRESENTATION-----------------

Should come as no real surprise that the Ostriches are in the majority on the County Council.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

February 23, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Sorry for the delay getting this week's blog up. I could blame it on the 533 pages in our packet materials this week, but in reality it is the great weather. I've got trees to prune, ferns to plant, dogs to run - and that all took precedence over this blog.

There are a bunch of interesting issues on the agenda this week, so instead of just talking about one I would like to talk briefly about a few.

Septic Systems - The much talked about septic ordinance will be back in front of us for a hearing and vote on Tuesday. The major change in the new version of the ordinance would be to remove the requirement that all septic systems are inspected by a professional to begin with to ensure that the County has a good baseline of information about how well the 30,000 systems in the county are working. The professional inspection requirement will be replaced by allowing the homeowner to do their own inspections if they agree to take a class and file the paperwork.

I intend to vote against this change because I believe it represents a backsliding in the regulations designed to address a known water quality problem throughout the county. I don't believe the $150-250 fee would be over burdensome, and is certainly not out of line with what every person that lives within one of our cities pays for sewer service. Other counties that have had owner-based inspection programs are now considering adopting professional inspections because they have found a small percentage of people fudge on their inspections, and while it may not be many it certainly is enough to impact water quality and public health. To put good science, public health, and water quality aside to appease a small percentage of loud complainers doesn't seem like very good policy. That being said, I don't think most home owners will choose to take the class and do the dirty job of inspecting their own systems, so even with this slackening of the rules we will still be way ahead of where we were at just a few years ago regarding ensuring septic systems are working. Unfortunately, if places like Drayton Harbor continue to show human bacteria in the water we will either have to bring back professional inspections, or spend lots of tax payer money trying to track down individual scofflaws.

The Bellingham Herald just published a good editorial on the subject which can be found here

Planning Commissioners - This week we will be making the final appointment to the Planning Commission to fill the vacant slot created by the death of Sean Wilson. The Planning Commission is current pretty evenly split between those with more progressive ideas regarding growth management and land use and those that take a more property right approach. This appointment could potentially give one side or the other a majority. If you are interested in reading the applications of the 5 people who have applied for this position you can download them here.

Personally, I think it is good for the Planning Commission to be a mix of beliefs about land use issues to ensure that all viewpoints are represented and solutions that may not have been considered it the group was too one-sided are well vetted. Of course whichever side people are on they need to be willing to listen to the professional experience of staff and work within the sometimes frustrating constraints of the law. For this vote I am looking for someone who is a good listener and will make decisions based on the facts and not their own deeply help ideology. I also am more apt to vote for someone who will use a precautionary approach to land use, since once you allow property to be subdivided it is almost impossible to undo those decisions. Protecting our county from sprawl is a constant battle and one Planning Commission backed by one County Council that allows land to be subdivided willy-nilly can create havoc that is nearly impossible to undo. To undo that damage would cost tens of millions of tax payers dollars, and to allow it to stand would also cost millions of tax payer dollars in the form of increased costs for law enforcement, fire control, roads, etc in the rural areas.

Long Range Planning Work Program - On Tuesday we will be having the first discussion about priorities for our Planning Department regarding work on Comprehensive Plan amendments and zoning changes. Staff has told us they do not have sufficient staff to move everything on the list forward this year, especially when huge decisions from the past year have been added to the list by Council members who were on the losing side of those past votes. This prioritization decision will be made at our March 16th meeting, but is on the agenda this week to help educate all of us as to the reality of the list and the implications for the choices we will make. Developers and the cities have already started to chime in. To download the list of possible projects and the long discussion about which are mandatory and which are not click here.

Subdivisions within the Lake Whatcom Watershed - We will have a hearing on Tuesday about extending an interim moratorium on any subdivision of land in the Lake Whatcom Watershed smaller than 5 acres. As is well known development within the watershed has been responsible for the decline in the lake, so allowing more development through subdivision of land makes little sense from a drinking water protection standpoint. This moratorium has been in place for a number of years now, and needs to stay in place until the County's rural element of the Comprehensive Plan is updated at which time the zoning will be changed to make this permanent. Unfortunately it is unclear how the vote on this will go on Tuesday. If science and rational thought lose out we will very likely see a rush to vest all the potential lots left in the watershed, with the end result that once again the taxpayers will get to further subsidize the clean up of the lake for that can afford to buy a lot there.

Repealing provisional zoning in Birch Bay - We will have a hearing on Tuesday regarding repealing an ordinance that created some provisional zoning in the Birch Bay area. This area in Birch Bay was proposed for an upzone as part of the Birch Bay plan to create a commercial area and denser housing. This upzone in the area makes good sense since it will help move commercial activities and housing back from the bay to help protect water quality as well as maintain a more community/pedestrian friendly drive along the bay. To encourage such development the zoning would change in the area from as little as 1 house per 10 acres to 24 houses per acre. This represents a huge windfall profit for the developers who purchased this property at the current low density zoning. There is no doubt that implementing such developments costs developers a lot of money, yet it is also clear that they make a lot of money when successful. The provisional zoning, that is proposed for repeal, was an attempt to get some additional public protections and benefits from this huge gift to the property owners. The language in the provisional zoning requires that for the developers to realize these profits they would have to work together to create a master plan for the entire area and transfer a number of development rights from other parts of the county (Lake Whatcom, prime agriculture) that are slated for protection. These seem like valid requirements for such a huge change in land use and I am unsure why we are considering giving them up. In particular, everyone seems to claim that transfer of development rights is one of the few ways we have to protect those parts of the county we recognize need protection, so why are we so easily giving that up for the benefit of few developers in Birch Bay?

Finally one correction - At our last meeting the Council passed a resolution opposing House Bill 3181 which would increase the state's hazardous substance tax to help local government pay for stormwater protections needed to protect our local waters. I was the lone vote against opposing this bill, yet the Bellingham Herald reported that while I voted against the resolution I also oppose the bill. This is not accurate. As stated at our Council meeting I do support the efforts of the state legislature to find ways to fund these much needed stormwater improvements. I actually argued against voting for something drafted by a "lobbyist for big oil," (which Bill Kidd from BP and Sam Crawford acknowledged earlier in the day) and said the money was clearly needed by local government to deal with stormwater pollution. I also defended the bill against Kathy Kershner's rant about it being dishonest, against Barbara Brenner's rant about it being a sneak attack, and against Sam Crawford's statement about how it is not needed because the county has such great regulations and enforcement. I also argued that the claims by many that our local refineries will close up shop and move to Indonesia if they are required to pass this small tax on to purchasers of their products is nonsense. In reality the price of gas varies way more than this on a day-to-day basis based on the price of a barrel of oil and so far consumers don't seem to have quit filling up.

I did voice concerns about the bill diverting the money to the general fund for the first couple years, and that it placed the tax on wholesalers instead of the actual retail products. I do believe the bill could be better targeted on individual purchasers of the products to send a clear incentive to quit using them, but I am not a state legislator and have no idea of all the pressures they are under or discussions they have had. While perhaps not perfect this bill is certainly a needed step to start funding improvements to stop the decline in our marine waters.

The "talking out of both sides" award of the evening goes to the Council members who argued vociferously that they just can't support legislation that diverts money from its intended use to the general fund. While I agree with this sentiment, the Council members making this argument did exactly the same thing recently when they voted to gut our local - voter approved - Conservation Futures fund and divert that money to the County's General Fund. I guess they are only opposed to such diversions when it is the state legislature doing it, not when they do it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

February 9, 2010 - Issue of the Week

I was planning to do this week's blog on the proposed South Fork Regional Park near Acme, but that item is being pulled from the agenda so it will have to wait for a future blog.

Instead, I would like to talk about one of those really under recognized programs that the County helps fund - The Friendly Visitor Program. If our last meeting is any indication this program may be on the chopping block this week. At our last meeting Sam Crawford, joined by Ward Nelson and Kathy Kershner, tried to chop the funding for that outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars the Food Bank. Council member Crawford also supported chopping funding for the Volunteer Center, so I suspect that this weeks contract with the Northwest Regional Council to fund the Friendly Visitor program may also get called into question. In previous years Sam has pronounced that he doesn't think it is the job of County government to pay people to be other peoples friends through this program. Let's examine that sentiment a little bit.

The Friendly Visitor program is run by the Interfaith Coalition of churches and provides volunteers to check up on elderly people still living on their own. The County provides $20,000 toward the program to help pay part of the cost of the program volunteer coordination. In return, in 2009 over 1800 visits were made to isolated seniors throughout Whatcom County. This equates to over 2600 hours of volunteered time and over 19,000 miles of volunteered miles driven to ensure that these seniors are safe.

In 2003 the Northwest Regional Council (NWRC) conducted an intensive study of the needs of older adults and persons with disabilities in Whatcom, Skagit, Island, and San Juan counties. One of the findings of this study was that the single greatest un-met need of seniors living independently at home was loneliness and isolation. Friendly Visitors arose from a task force composed of Whatcom County agencies and organizations involved in senior services. Today Friendly Visitors is funded by the Interfaith Coalition and a $20,000 grant from Whatcom County.

In brief, Friendly Visitors recruits, trains, matches, and then supports volunteers to become visitors and friends to an isolated or lonely senior in their own home or apartment. Volunteers do not become caregivers but become a much-needed friend and connection to community resources for seniors who may need them. In some cases, the volunteers function as a “safety net” for some seniors who have no other contacts and whose health or other needs may go otherwise undetected and possibly become life-threatening. Matches visit in the homes, go out for coffee, go for walks or drives, or work on projects or hobbies together.

The positive impact on the senior community is not limited to the senior receiving the visits. More than 65% of the volunteers are over the age of 60 themselves. This means these senior volunteers are learning about common senior concerns and needs, available resources, and the importance of planning for their own future before they have a severe need.

Here are a few examples of how Friendly Visitor volunteers have helped seniors in Whatcom County:

1. During last January's cold spell a Friendly Visitor volunteer stops by to visit his 94-year-old friend who still lives at home alone despite some growing memory loss. He discovers his friend in a cold house with no heat, and no idea of how long it has been that way or what is wrong. Going down to check on the furnace, the volunteer discovers a foot of water in the basement. The volunteer notifies family contacts, brings back space heaters and continues to check in and make sure that the elderly man is warm and safe.

2. An elderly woman went outside and fell. She would have lain there a long time but for her Friendly Visitor coming to check on her.

3. An elderly woman living alone in Blaine has no one in her life other than her Friendly Visitor. Her volunteer visitor became concerned one day when the lady wouldn't answer the door or the phone. She called the police who went in and found the woman passed out.

4. Earlier this winter, when dropping in to meet a 95 year old man with some dementia who is, nevertheless, living at home alone, the Friendly Visitor Program Coordinator found the man with no heat in the house as well as rat droppings all over the floor and furniture.

5. An elderly woman living alone with no family nearby, and on the edge physically, emotionally and socially. There have been several emergency and semi-emergency situations where her Friendly Visitor has been the one to encounter the emergency. For example, the senior's refrigerator broke and all of the food spoiled, but she didn't call anyone. She continued to drink the spoiled milk because she was worried about her osteoporosis. Her volunteer found her, very ill, and called emergency services. The volunteer then went and purchased new food and arranged to have a new fridge installed. The volunteer has since convinced the senior to have the “First Alert” program (where they wear a necklace that has a button which, when pushed, will alert emergency services) and is on the service's list as the responder.

6. A Friendly Visitor visiting an elderly housebound friend noticed that the senior had lost a lot of weight, and a quick glance in the refrigerator showed an appalling lack of food. Coming back later with several quarts of homemade soup and a bag of groceries, the visitor began regular checking in with the senior on her grocery shopping needs.

7. And there are many other stories where, because isolated seniors were matched with Friendly Visitors, evidence of physical abuse, neglect, or growing dementia leading to unsafe living conditions was found. In each case, it was only because a Friendly Visitor was there that the situation was discovered, and a potential life-threatening emergency averted.

When money is tight in government it certainly makes sense to prioritize programs and make cuts before raising taxes. But good government doesn't cut things that put people at risk or harms the most vulnerable. Programs like the Friendly Visitor Program and the Food Bank form the basic safety net for people in need, especially in these hard times. If cuts need to be made these certainly are not the types of places we should be looking to cut first. Hopefully this contract will fly through on Tuesday with little or no desire to dissect it, just like much larger contracts to buy road equipment or consultants often fly through.

*************** UPDATE 2/10/2010 ************************

I am happy to report that at the Council meeting last night the contract for the Friendly Visitor Program was approved by a 6-1 vote with only Council member Sam Crawford voting against the program.

In an unexpected twist, started to some degree by this blog, an impromtu fundraiser for the program started within Sam Taylor's Politics blog on the Bellingham Herald. While a lively discussion about the pros and cons of government support for charities took place a friendly challenge led to a number of people pledging money for the program. After some scrambling the Herald agreed to collect donations for the Interfaith Coalition's Freindly Visitor Program until February 19th. As of the close of business today Sam Taylor reports $350 has been received. To keep track of this fundrasing effort, or better yet to learn how you too can donate (I'm already in for $50), click here to go to Sam's blog about it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January 26, 2010 – Issue of the Week

Let’s talk poop!

Council members Barbara Brenner and Sam Crawford have introduced an ordinance to significantly weaken the septic system inspection requirements that have been in place for a couple of years now. We will have a public hearing on this proposal at our January 26th meeting, so I will try to provide enough background so you can make your mind up about this proposal. To be totally transparent here let me say right up front that I have already made my mind up about their proposal, and I think it stinks, which is quite appropriate for the subject.

Background – In 2005 and 2006 the state legislature and State Department of Health recognized that many marine areas of the state were being impacted by poorly maintained and failing septic systems. They passed legislation (RCW 70.188A) and rules (WAC 246-272A) to address this these problems by requiring local health jurisdictions and health officers to develop plans to protect our water resources by implementing, at a minimum, the state rules.

In response to these state mandates, and our own concerns about bacterial pollution in Lake Whatcom, Drayton Harbor, Portage Bay, etc the County Council did a major revision of our local septic system regulations to provide for the state required inventory and inspection of all septic systems in the county. The regulations that were ultimately passed went beyond the state’s inspection requirements by requiring that a licensed septic specialist do the initial inspection of each septic system. The Council majority at the time felt that such initial professional inspections were necessary to ensure that we received an accurate baseline of data on the location and operating status of the 30,000 estimated septic systems in the county. The Council also approved a Local Management Plan for Septic Systems (click here to download), which was approved by the State Department of Health.

The ordinance that Council members Brenner and Crawford have drafted is targeted at removing the professional inspection requirements and all ongoing inspections of any type. Click here to download their proposed ordinance and click here to see how that would change the county code. I believe this is mainly in response to the many complaints the county has received about the cost of these professional inspections ($140 - $300).

Discussion of Need – There is a substantial amount of scientifically collected data that supports the need to identify and reduce bacterial pollution coming from septic systems. Under the federal Clean Water Act the State Department of Ecology has initiated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) studies for Lake Whatcom, the Nooksack River, and Drayton Harbor because of fecal coliform pollution levels above water quality standards set to protect public health. Because of similar fecal coliform pollution levels Whatcom County has been required by state law to form shellfish protection districts in Drayton Harbor, Portage Bay and most recently Birch Bay to develop recovery plans to reduce the pollution. Fecal Coliform is just one type of bacteria, but its presence is an indication that other harmful types such as E. Coli and various viruses are also present. Fecal Coliform comes from a variety of sources with livestock being perhaps the main source throughout the county. Even so there is ample evidence that septic systems are a significant source. High levels of measured bacterial pollution in specific locations along Fishtrap Creek, Wildcat Cove, and the south shore of Drayton Harbor were all controlled when failing septic systems were identified and fixed. To help determine the source of bacterial pollution in Drayton Harbor DNA testing of the bacteria was done, and human fecal bacteria was found in 13 of the 24 sites tested in both the streams leading to the harbor as well as the harbor itself. Drayton Harbor may be the most studied area in the county, and a good deal of those studies and data are available on the Public Works website here.

Discussion of Cost – It is certainly true that there is a cost to people who have septic systems. The professional inspections run in the $140 - $300 range, and if you have to have your system pumped (normally every 3-5 years) that would be about an additional $300. Under our current rules for a normal gravity based septic system a person willing to take a free class and inspect their own system would have to pay the inspection fee once every nine years. Assuming they pump their system twice during that same time that amounts to an average worst case cost of $100/year. For someone who decides to have their system professionally inspected every three years (current inspection cycle) that cost would be $167/year. For comparison a person moving to the City of Blaine and paying for sewer service would average over $80/month or $960/year. Even if you amortize in the cost of replacing a septic system every 25 years ($15000/25 years = $600/year) these new inspection requirements aren’t particularly onerous compared to what the majority of citizens who live in our seven cities pay.

The County Health Department is working hard to come up with grant money to start a low interest loan program with Shore Bank so people who need to do costly repairs can get some financial assistance. This is certainly something that everyone would welcome. Anyone know how the cities help people who can’t pay their sewer bills?

That’s enough for one evening. I will try to add more in the coming days. Let me know what you think.


A couple of things that I forgot to mention yesterday.

First of all I did not state clearly that the ordinance that Council members Brenner and Crawford have introduced is clearly not legal. State regulations require ongoing inspections of septic systems in the county, and their proposed ordinance would remove this requirement so would be in conflict with state regulations. Not sure how they plan to make that align with the oath we all took to defend the laws of the State of Washington. I suspect when this is pointed out by staff or myself they will amend the proposed ordinance to only get rid of the professional inspection requirements instead of all inspection requirements. This will require the ordinance to be re-introduced and another hearing. Seems like two veteran council members should have vetted this better since they have been working on this for nearly a year now.

So ultimately this comes down to whether septic system owners should ever have to prove, by an independent inspection, that their systems are operating correctly. My belief is that most people will hire a professional anyway because they just won't want to deal with it themselves. Others would take the classes and do a fine job of inspecting their own systems. Unfortunately, there is evidence from other places that a large enough group of people will somehow fudge on the inspections to impact our local water quality.

For example, the Center for Watershed Management contains a great article from Urban Lake Management which states:

"After construction, long-term maintenance of the septic system is typically the responsibility of the individual homeowner. This is less than ideal, since studies have suggested that only about half of all septic owners maintain their systems according to recommended guidelines (i.e., annual inspection and pumpout of the septic tank every three to five years (Swann, 1999; Gomez et al., 1992)."

Other counties in Washington State who originally adopted regulations that did not require professional inspections are now considering amending their regulations to require such professional regulations because of what they consider significant numbers of homeowners not properly inspecting their systems.

Finally, there seems to be some belief that failing septic systems are only a concern near streams where bacterial pollution can cause restrictions to shellfish harvest. While that is a real concern it certainly is not the only one. We really only test for fecal coliform in our local waters, but the presence of human bacteria also indicates that a wide range of other chemicals known to be present in septic system are also being discharged into our local surface and groundwater. These chemicals can include a wide variety of chemicals from household products, heavy metals, caffeine, and pharmaceutical drugs. Failing systems in areas of drinking water wells can also lead to a variety of human diseases. For instance from the same article referenced above:

"Many reports of disease outbreaks are linked to ground water contamination by septic system effluent. In fact, effluent from septic systems is the most frequently cited source of ground water contamination leading to diseases such as acute gastrointestinal illness, hepatitis A, and typhoid (US EPA, 1986)"

This article is a great read and can be downloaded by clicking here.

**********UPDATE 1/23 ***********************

I have not really talked at all about what has been found here in the county during the first few years of inspections. As is spelled out in the Plan the inspection program has been phased in slowly starting in marine areas most at risk from bacterial pollution. The Health Department started with the Drayton Harbor watershed in 2007 because it is designated as a Marine Recovery Area. From there the program was implemented in Birch Bay, Chuckanut Bay, Lummi Island and Point Roberts. To date 6,277 septic systems have been inspected out of an estimated 30,000 systems.

Since the program started in Drayton Harbor that area probably has the highest percentage of systems inspected at just over 70%. Of the 2170 systems inspected there, about 71% passed the inspections, about 25% needed maintenance, and 2.8% systems were failing. These numbers represent good news for Draton Harbor since an inspection program along the shores of Drayton Harbor ten years earlier had a significantly higher failure rate. There is some speculation about how the numbers for the remaining 30% (800-900 systems) of the systems will come in. Have these people not yet responded because they have missed the multiple notices, don't have the money, or know they have problems?

County-wide over 6000 systems have been inspected so far. The overall percentages are: 65% passed, 31 % needed maintenance, 4% were faling. Here is a chart:
A 4% failure rate may seem pretty insignificant, but remember there are many examples of a single failing system dramatically affecting water quality. Those 247 failing systems represent tanks that probably hold at least 247,000 gallons of human sewage. A very general rule of thumb is that for each person in the house about 100 gallons/day goes down the drain. If 2 people live in each of those 247 houses with failing systems that amounts to over 18 million gallons of sewage a year that may not be getting treated correctly. If that same failure rate of 4% holds true across the entire county, that would amount to over 85 million gallons of poorly treated sewage each year!

I received some interesting comments and great suggestions for improvements to this program from a licensed septic system designers earlier today. He was a member of the advisory committee to the Board of Health when this program was first starting to be designed. You can download his comments by clicking here.

**********UPDATE 1/27/10**************

At the Council meeting last night Council member Brenner said that the ordinance that she and Council member Crawford introduced back in November, (and that a number of advisory committees and government agencies had spent significant time reviewing and commenting on), was not the ordinance that she had meant to bring forward. She had a new version she wanted to work off of (click here to download it), which is actually better. The County attorney made it clear that the Council could not pass the new version since it was significantly different than what had been out for public review, and that it would have to be introduced and another public hearing held. So we had the pleasure of setting through a couple of hours of raucous testimony about septic system programs for the wrong ordinance that everyone agreed was illegal and could not be passed.

When that was done the Council majority wanted to pass an interim ordinance making the professional inspections go away. Again the County attorney had to tell them that was not legal. At that point the Health Department stood up and spoke on behalf of the County Administration that they could just administratively quit enforcing those provisions of the septic rules until the Council majority could figure out what they really wanted and pass it legally. There was a motion from the Council to direct the Health Department to quit enforcing the professional inspection provisions of the septic ordinance, and that passed 5-2 with Ken Mann and myself opposed.

So, at one of our next meetings we get to start again on this re-write of the septic ordinance, and then get to have another public hearing to gather input. To the Shellfish Protection District advisory committees, the Marine Resource Committee, the City of Blaine, the Department of Ecology and others who took time to review the science and write comments on this mistakenly introduced ordinance I would have to say save your breath next time around. In the meantime, I'm heading out to buy some new knee high rubber boots and maybe a pitchfork.